‘The Wire’ Wednesdays, Part Three: ‘We Ain’t Back in the Day’

A great show throws itself overboard and starts again in Season Two

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Pablo Schreiber as Nick Sobotka and Chris Bauer as Frank Sobotka.

In a new column, Sean T. Collins examines several episodes of HBO’s award-winning drama The Wire at a time to figure out what made it such a groundbreaking show. Whether you’re a fan of the original, or haven’t seen an episode but are still lying to your friends at parties to save face, this is your chance to catch up on the show just in time for its remastered rerelease on December 26th. Find previous entries here.

This week: Season Two, Episodes 1-6

By the time the opening credits finish rolling on the The Wire’s second season premiere, you’re watching a different show than you were when the closing credits finished rolling on the first season finale. Jimmy McNulty, system-bucking enemy-making super-detective, has been reduced to riding a boat in the Marine Unit, but that sorry spectacle is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For one thing, there’s actual ice to contend with: The summer heat has been replaced by gray midwinter chil and clouds of frosted breath. The plummeting temperature feels reflected in the credits themselves: The Blind Boys of Alabama’s rollicking roadhouse gospel version of “Way Down in the Hole” has been replaced by the delirium-tremens minimalism of Tom Waits’ art-rock original, and its second verse’s references to Satan (“he’s got the fire and the fury at his command”) are a damn sight more menacing than the swapped-in third verse present during Season One, with its uplifting praise of “Jesus’ mighty sword.” And while the imagery is still a montage of tight close-ups on transactional hand gestures and inscrutable electronic surveillance mechanisms, the jittery jump-cuts between them are largely phased out in favor of slower, cooler dissolves. And we haven’t even touched the radically different waterside setting for much of that imagery — or the whole new set of cast names slapped atop it. The post-credits epigraph, from a bit character called Little Big Roy, sums it up: Whatever The Wire is now, “Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”

It turns out that it was literally impossible to understand the nature The Wire until its second season. It wasn’t until then, when it left the West Side projects behind to head for the docks and introduce a whole new cast of criminals and civilians with blue collars and white skin, that it truly became itself. That’s different from shows that simply got sharper, even dramatically so, as they went along — the example everyone points to for this kind of thing is “College,” the landmark fifth episode of The Sopranos’ first season, which juxtaposed Tony’s family life and Family life with unsparing clarity as he stalked and murdered an informant while on a road trip with his college-bound daughter. As I’ve said before, The Wire, by contrast, had its tone and pacing down pat in the pilot. What it didn’t have — what it couldn’t have, until it did an entire season’s worth of establishing itself in one particular setting — was the unprecedented shifting and widening of scope that would come to characterize it from season to season.

Of course, if the new setting and wider scope aren’t interesting in their own right, shifting over to them would be a big whoopdee-shit. Fortunately, that’s not the case. (Not yet, anyway: Tune in six weeks from now for the Season Five debacle!) The stevedores and Sobotkas of Season Two have their detractors, but I’m definitely not one of them. Their world is rich and understudied, just like the mechanics and politics of the inner-city drug trade were in Season One. And in the guise of showing how cargo gets moved, contraband gets smuggled, and money gets made along the docks, David Simon and Ed Burns are able to tell the story of the deliberate destruction of the labor movement by moneyed interests as the industries that filled its ranks went south, a story as central to American decline as the immiseration wrought on largely black communities by the War on Drugs, and with many of the same villains.

The heroes, or whatever you’d call the Sobotkas, hold up too. Chris Bauer is so good as union boss and reluctant patriarch Frank Sobotka that you forget every embarrassment he subsequently endured as Sheriff Andy on True Blood within seconds of watching him here. James Ransone does well with a difficult role as Frank’s son Ziggy, an irrepressible fuck-up people treat like a lovable mutt who can’t help but piss the carpet. Pablo Schreiber is quietly excellent as his Ziggy’s cousin Nick, the go-between for Frank’s mostly legit union and the smugglers who help keep its coffers filled; he wears the emotional exhaustion of scrambling to make ends meet both legally and illegally like a heavy winter coat. Nick and Ziggy are Season Two’s equivalent of Season One’s D’Angelo and Wallace, too thoughtful and too innocent to make it in this world respectively.

But enough with the equivalents: Where are the Season One originals? That’s Season Two’s second leap of faith: They’re still on the show, for the most part, but they’re scattered to the four winds, and spend hour after hour pursuing separate paths. It’s not until the fifth episode that the pieces finally come together. Our old friends Bunk and Lester are investigating the murder of 13 women found in a cargo can the dockworkers were helping to smuggle thanks to the efforts of McNulty, who deliberately tied them to a fourteenth woman he found floating in the water just to screw his hated old boss, Bill Rawls, with over a dozen “stone whodunits.” Meanwhile, Cedric Daniels has returned from exile in the Property Unit and gotten the band back together — Prez, Carver, Kima, Herc, Lester — in order to fill out a special detail staffed created by Prez’s idiot father-in-law, Krychek, in order to screw Frank Sobotka due to a rivalry at their Polish Catholic church. Only when Lester turns to Prez’s nearly bare bulletin board and recognizes Frank’s photo do the storylines finally connect. Hell, at this point both the Barksdale crew (now with Stringer Bell as acting boss) and Omar still aren’t directly related to the main action, and Bubbles, an all-time great character, is barely on the show. The confidence involved in all this, the chutzpah required to believe you can take apart your show like a Lego playset and build a new one from scratch, is staggering.

And they pull it off, is the thing. The slow-burn reveal of the old characters and their reconvergence, the Sobotkas, the union stuff — all rock solid. The Barksdale story, while now tangential to the central plot, makes up for it by becoming as Sopranosesque as the show ever gets: Stringer, whose breathy voice is weirdly reminiscent of Tony’s stuffy-nose speech, orchestrates mafioso-like plans first to help the imprisoned D’Angelo, then to eliminate him when he proves uncooperative — and when String starts sleeping with the mother of his child. We get our first bonafide archvillain in the person of the Greek, the mysterious kingpin of crime on the waterfront and a compellingly cold (if more one-dimensionally sinister) customer compared to anyone in the Barksdale organization. Entertaining parallels begin to emerge: Both the murder investigation spurred by McNulty and the investigation into crime at the docks instigated by Krychek are motivated simply by spite. There are the occasional flubs (Bodie, on a road trip to Philadelphia during which he learns for the first time that radio stations change from city to city, listens to The Prairie Home Companion like it’s a transmission from another world; ah, the feather-light editorial hand of David Simon), but way way fewer than you’d expect.

Ironically, for a show that broke its own mold so boldly and beautifully, seemingly everyone and everything is driven by either a desire or an inability to break from their past. D’Angelo (like the eponymous character in The Great Gatsby, which he reads in prison) wants to get away from the worse life he used to lead. McNulty wants to get back together with his estranged wife, assuring her his days of excess working/drinking/womanizing are over. Kima and Daniels both find themselves reneging on promises made to their wives that they’d leave the force behind for a politically and physically safer career in the law. The younger Sobotkas struggle to reconcile their fond childhood memories of their parents’ careers with the hard reality of the failing industry they followed their folks into. Stringer finds himself dealing an inferior product after Avon’s imprisonment and resorts to simply changing its name in hopes of fooling the junkies into buying it for a few more weeks. (Shades of the party boat McNulty’s patrol boat comes across in the premiere’s cold open; a rich guy in a tux bribes him into towing it out of the shipping lanes, “and the band plays on a little longer.”)  And the women whose murder sets the story in motion were all hoping to find a better life for themselves in the States; they so successfully left their old ones behind that McNulty can’t even find so much as a name for a single one of them. By the end of the sixth episode, the past claims another victim: D’Angelo, clean of both the drugs he started using when he got to prison and the gang that got him there, is executed on Stringer’s orders in the show’s most prolonged and excruciating act of on-screen violence to date. You don’t need to be on McNulty’s boat, or Frank’s, to be borne back ceaselessly into the past.